Some people predicted Rotherham United would suffer a landslide defeat, particularly if they defended at multi-million-pound Aston Villa as they had in the midweek EFL Cup setback against Morecambe.
Others thought they might be able to pinch a famous win if they managed to get in front against a side notoriously nervy after relegation from the Premier League and two defeats in their opening two games under new manager Roberto Di Matteo.
The reality was somewhere in between.
The Millers were soundly beaten by a better side. They weren’t humiliated, although at times in the second half they were made to chase shadows and their defensive frailty showed up again. 3-0 was about right.
Boss Alan Stubbs’ desire for his side to pass the ball is worthy and brave, but they gave away possession too cheaply and have now conceded 10 goals in three matches, with the season just over a week old.
All non-Millers eyes were on the most expensive ever Championship buy, Ross McCormack, making his home debut for Villa in front of a crowd at the wonderful Villa Park of more than 33,000.
Yet it was his strike partner, Rudy Gestede, who ruined Rotherham.
The big targetman won virtually everything in the air, put Villa ahead with a well-directed header in the 21st minute and added the killer second on the stroke of half-time when he latched on to McCormack’s little through-ball and produced a lovely dink over Lee Camp.
Stubbs’ men, without creating anything like a clear-cut chance, had been in the game until then, but suddenly the manager’s half-time team talk grew a whole lot harder.
Jack Grealish dribbled past players and across the penalty area before finishing from a tight angle in the 84th minute - ironically, just after Rotherham had pressed hard for five minutes and enjoyed their best spell of the game - and one of football’s best-known statistics was at an end. Villa are no longer without a win since February.
By the final whistle, the Millers had mustered one shot on target - a tame Jake Forster-Caskey effort straight at the goalkeeper just before Gestede struck for the second, crucial time.
THE UNLEVEL PLAYING FIELD
It didn’t help that Rotherham contributed to their own downfall. With the score at 0-0 in the 21st minute, they were attacking until Jon Taylor and Forster-Caskey played a gentleman’s excuse me and left the ball to each other. Villa countered and seconds later the Millers were behind.
But neither does it help when you’re up against a club that earned around £100 million in television revenue last season, has the benefit of parachute payments close to £80m and has even more money at its dispoal after a £76m takeover by Chinese businessman Tony Xia.
McCormack cost a cool £12m and two-goal Rudy was £6m when he arrived a season ago, while centre-half James Chester, signed for £1m more than Gestede in the build-up to the game, was making his Villa debut.
Stubbs referenced it in his after-match comments, although, still very early in his Millers reign, he was wasn’t making a big deal about it and focused more on the need for his players to become comfortable with his new playing methods.
“You have got to give the opposition a bit of respect,” he said. “We are coming to Villa Park. They were a Premier League club last season. You have to be realistic when you look in terms of resources. We are not on a level playing field.
“That doesn’t make an excuse for one or two errors that we made. You go into every game and you pay the opposition respect, but when you’re out there it’s 11 v 11.
“They go and break the record on McCormack, then they pay £7m for Chester. That’s what I mean about being realistic.”
NEW WAYS, NEW BOYS
Rotherham didn’t give themselves a chance because they didn’t hold on to the ball well enough. They’re a work in progress as they move towards a more cultured, expansive style of play and Stubbs adds to the squad.
The Neil Warnock game of percentages has gone. Unfortunately, while players adapt, so has the defensive solidity the Warnock way brought.
“It just comes down to having an awareness of what’s around you when you are receiving the ball and having the confidence to be able to come to big grounds, get on the ball and look to be positive,” Stubbs said.
“Maybe there is an urge to get rid of the ball as quickly as possible. When you go to any ground, you have got to be as positive as you can. We got ourselves into some good positions but we just didn’t deliver on the final ball.”
Young centre-half Dominic Ball made his debut, showing good mobility and the strength to muscle an opponent away from the ball, but he’ll be pleased to learn he won’t face Gestede quality every week.
Right-back Darnell Fisher came on for his first Millers action, in a tactical shuffle as captain Stephen Kelly moved to the left to replace Joe Mattock, and added pace and athleticism.
With its ornate facade, imposing brick-built stands and sheer scale, Villa Park is a truly special venue, managing to combine tradition and modern in a seamless, iconic way. The place has class.
Before Saturday, it hadn’t staged second-tier football since the 1980s and Villa fans are used to bigger and better things.
Three years ago, two divisions separated the clubs when Rotherham went there in the League Cup and lost 3-0. The result might have been the same this time, but the fact that the Millers, in league status at least, are now equals shows how far they have come in recent years.
“It’s a long season. We are not going to get too downhearted on ourselves,” Stubbs said. “We have to move on very quickly and on to the next one.”
A result to forget at a place to remember.
Goals: Gestede 21, 45+3, Grealish 84 (Villa).
Referee: Keith Stroud 7.